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13 Nov 2002 : Column 49—continued

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman champions the empowerment of local government on the one hand but in the next breath and on the other hand he seems to support the creation of an additional layer of government, further away from the people. Why is it that he thinks that regional government is necessary, when surely the principle upon which local government should be based is that people's identification is with their parish, their village, their town or their district?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. That was a rather lengthy intervention.

Mr. Clelland: The hon. Gentleman is as ignorant as his leader on regional government. It is not about taking power from local government; on the contrary. [Interruption.] No, it is not. If Opposition Members had studied the subject more deeply, they might have understood that that is not the intention or the implication of what the Government want or what I would champion. Regional government is about power coming down from this place to the regions, not power coming up from local government.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Government will simply give up power and hand it to the regions?

Mr. Clelland: I believe that the Government's record stands to be examined on its merits; they have already

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done just that, in Scotland, Wales and London—and in Northern Ireland, except that we have a bit of a hitch there at the moment. That is the Government's policy: to devolve power from the centre to regional assemblies and to national Parliaments and, let us hope, to regional assemblies in England as well. [Interruption.] If Conservative Members have not recognised that, I do not know what on earth they have been looking at.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Will the hon. Gentleman explain why the Deputy Prime Minister said in his statement on 17 July that the regional spatial strategy would dictate to the unitary authorities, or the district or county councils, exactly how many houses were to be built in each area, and the densities? If that is not taking power from local government, I do not know what is.

Mr. Clelland: The hon. Gentleman should not assume that because we have a new tier of government, national Government will have no powers and nothing to do; or that regional government will take over everything and local government will have nothing to do. There will still be powers at each level. There will still be regional planning, of which local authorities will have to take account. There will still be national planning, of which regional authorities will have to take account. We are simply talking about each tier having the appropriate level of responsibility; that is all that it is about.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Deputy Prime Minister. I am unaware of the specific remark that he mentioned, but the Deputy Prime Minister does plan to publish in the coming Session a national communities plan, which promises the most far-reaching changes in housing policy for 30 years. However, if it merely means more new towns in the south, the problems will continue to get worse. If step changes are in vogue, nowhere are they more needed than in regional policy. The Government should consider more decentralisation of Government Departments and the moving of jobs into the regions. More should be done to encourage economic activity and business development in the north. Too many old myths about the north still abound and too many who have never travelled there still harbour images of pit heaps, flat caps, grey skies and depression. For too many, the truth remains an untold story. The north-east in particular is an historic and beautiful region of England. We have the cleanest beaches, most beautiful countryside, good internal transport links and forward-looking public authorities. A great deal of work is being done in the region to overcome the difficulties. I am particularly proud of the renaissance on Tyneside, my birthplace, and we are determined that, should we succeed in our capital of culture bid, the benefits will be spread throughout the north-east and will help to dispel the myths.

We need even more than that, however, for our long-term survival and revival. Central government must take economic decisions that will attract jobs to the north and cool the economy in the south. We need more fiscal and other incentives to encourage business start-ups, improvements to the inter-regional transport infrastructure and fast, direct passenger and freight access to the channel tunnel. We need to be linked to the country's motorway network—we are the only region in the country that is not so linked—through

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improvements to the A1, A69 and A66. We need better use of regional airports and sea ports, and there should be more urgency in investing in improvements to the east and west coast rail lines.

Regional government will help us to help ourselves. I fear, however, notwithstanding the step forward in the Loyal Address, that that is still some way off, and more urgent action will be needed if we are to prevent the north and the south from suffering even more discomfort as a result of the economic disparities between them. Devolution to Scotland, Wales and London—welcome though that has been—has further disadvantaged the English regions economically and politically. It surely cannot be right that Scotland and Wales continue to have Secretaries of State sitting in the Cabinet, and that there should be a Minister for London, when they also have devolved assemblies. I am not making a personal attack on any of the Ministers concerned, or on the devolved assemblies, but it cannot be fair that they are doubly advantaged in such a way to the detriment of the rest of us. One Secretary of State for the nations and regions, with Ministers for Scotland, Wales and England to assist, is surely all that is now required.

I hope that the new Session will also see positive steps to improve the pensions regime. Although I accept that improvements have been made, and that the poorest pensioners have benefited from Government policies, much more needs to be done to ensure security in retirement for too many of our citizens, and to provide a direct link between pensions and the prosperity of the nation. Security in old age would be the greatest service that we could provide for our people.

That brings me nicely to my final point: House of Lords reform. The intention of the Joint Committee seems to be that the House should be given a range of choices on the way forward, and there will be opportunities for further debate in due course. I appeal to colleagues on both sides of the House whose love of democracy drives them to conclude that an elected second Chamber would enhance our system of government to think hard and long before voting for such an outcome in the new Session. It is surely simplistic to argue that if the second Chamber is elected it must therefore be better. One could infer from such an argument that the country would be better run by rolling referendum. Democracy is desirable, of course, but people would not thank us for an inefficient democracy—one that was constantly deadlocked because of competing mandates. The second Chamber should enhance, not obstruct, the process of government. At the same time, it cannot, of course, continue on the basis of patronage. A representative, responsible and respected second Chamber could be constructed by transferring the responsibility for selecting representatives to the country as a whole, not by direct election but by giving devolved assemblies, organisations and institutions, employers and trade unions the responsibility to provide people who could truly act in an advisory capacity.

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman is addressing a central question. Would he not agree that creative tension between the two Houses of Parliament, far from

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being a bad thing, could serve to check the legislative appetite of the Government if only a self-denying ordinance were applied?

Mr. Clelland: That depends on what should be the role of the second Chamber. The hon. Gentleman provokes me to make a longer speech than I had intended. With all due respect, however, I do not see the role of the second Chamber as being a check on the Executive. That is the job of Opposition Members, and of Back Bench Labour Members, and it should not be the job of the second Chamber. I do not, however, want to pursue that line at the moment.

A second Chamber made up as I have suggested would provide a good regional and demographic spread of representatives, and would also provide what has eluded us in direct elections so far—a House that is truly representative of gender and ethnicity.

5.30 pm

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I have declared my interests in the register.

In the Gracious Speech, Her Majesty said:

The Government are right to recognise the dreadful failure during their five years in office to deliver the public services that people require. They are right to realise that they need to do something dramatic to improve and change the situation. All too many of us have daily evidence in our constituencies of patients who are waiting far too long to get treatment or who are unsure when they will be diagnosed or allowed into an out-patient clinic. All too often we have evidence of parents whose children are not allowed to go to a popular or successful school and who are sent against their choice to a school down the road that will often have results far worse than the school they would like their children to attend.

Above all, my constituents and those of most right hon. and hon. Members are only too well aware of the catastrophic collapse of our transport system. The Government, the many Labour councils and the independent rogue Labour Mayor of London are making the situation worse for those who have to use their motor cars, while offering no positive, attractive or feasible alternative to enable our constituents to get their children to school, or to enable them to get to work, to the shops, to meet their friends or to attend leisure facilities in the evenings.

The most disappointing aspect of the Gracious Speech is the Government's refusal to realise that many of their problems in public services are self-inflicted. They have come about because this Government are the Government of tax and waste. They seriously believe that if they just announce a lot of extra money and tip a lot of extra money willy-nilly into the public services from the centre, there will be a miraculous transformation and suddenly nurses and doctors will be available in abundance, patients will be treated, pupils will be well educated, A-levels will go swimmingly and all will go well.

The Government are discovering the hard way that tipping a lot of money into an over-bureaucratic and over-centralised system can make matters worse and,

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clearly, often does not make them better. Instead of a tax-and-waste Government, I want a Government who are dedicated to proper public service reform that gives freedom to those in schools, hospitals and surgeries to run them in the way that they think best. I want a Government who give real choice and real freedom to all our constituents so that they can take advantage of free treatment or free places while choosing between different providers. I want constituents to exercise some control and to be treated better by the system as a result.

Over the 15 years during which I have been proud to represent my constituents in the House, I have never attended or heard of a debate about the bread supply. Bread is a crucial public service but miraculously, day after day, a good range of loaves is provided in the shops to my constituents and others. The bread industry even manages to handle the phenomenal demand for hot cross buns just before Easter. I never see notices in the shops saying, XPlease delay buying your hot cross buns until October. We are short because there is a rush on them." The bread industry manages to handle that by the magic of free enterprise, choice and freedom. Yet when in the winter there is a rush of people with flu who want an even more important public service—the service of decent health care—they are told, XIt is impossible to handle all these people because they have all chosen to have flu at the same time."

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